Coping with the Death of a Friend
Photo Credit: ALPHA/Shutterstock
I’ll never forget that dreary fall day. Gray faces mirrored the dark sky as the news made its way around our tight-knit neighborhood. One of my closest friends had breast cancer. How could that be? Robin was as devoted to her faith as she was to her three young girls. We had only begun to share the experience of raising our kids together. It was impossible to wrap my head around what was happening.
To describe my friend Robin as a warrior would only scratch the surface of her strength. From that day forward, she refused to let cancer define her. Through a 10-year battle, her illness sat on the back burner of her world. After each crushing blow of disease progression, she kept her worst moments private, always focusing on teaching her girls invaluable lessons on limited time. She was an inspiration, yet at the same time, a mischievous spirit who enjoyed being an unpredictable troublemaker. We bonded in fits of laughter, doing our best to take life a little less seriously, whenever we could.
As the treatments took their toll, two-hour phone conversations became our norm. We spent hours trying to figure out how people could be so fascinating, our code word for ridiculous (or worse). I spun tales that brought the outside world into a life that was becoming smaller and more confining. What I didn’t realize at the time was the huge benefit I was getting from having someone on the other end to listen.
On the day we said goodbye, I felt nothing but shock. Tissues and tears filled the hospital room, but my eyes were dry. I choked out words that felt meaningless and empty, telling her to rest and reassuring her that her family would be okay. How could anything be okay? Her death would leave a gaping hole in all of us.
My one attempt to fill part of that hole took place at Christmas that year, when I delivered handwritten personalized letters instead of presents. The notes spotlighted qualities that each of her daughters had inherited from Robin, and included memories from their childhoods. It was my way of ensuring that memories of their mother became indelible, rather than getting lost over time.
To describe my friend Robin as a warrior would only scratch the surface of her strength. From that day forward, she refused to let cancer define her.
A few months later, I made sure the girls gave their father a birthday celebration exactly the way Robin would have done it. I taught them to make his favorite dinner and then I left them to celebrate together. All of the milestones were important, especially that first year, but as time moved along, their support system would diminish. It seemed too easy for people to forget and move on.
As the years passed, I watched Robin’s girls grow into amazing young women. We had family nights together at least twice a year, and they never hesitated to share how grateful they were to have me in their lives. Text exchanges in-between visits warmed my heart, especially birthday sentiments. We never got tired of sharing stories, memories, and time together.
On the tenth anniversary of her death, we had a special evening to celebrate Robin’s life. Chocolate chip cookies had been her specialty, but no one had attempted to make them until that night. I could feel her spirit directing me as I sweated over the vague recipe she shared with me only one time; adding extra flour to the standard Tollhouse ingredients. How much was anyone’s guess, but they came out perfect and the girls were excited to be able to carry on a family tradition that had been forgotten.
On September 21st of last year, Robin’s oldest daughter got married. It was a bittersweet experience and the tears I had somehow held in for more than 10 years began to flow. Meeting the groom of my friend’s daughter for the first time that day brought everything into perspective. He hugged me with gusto, expressing that he was so excited to finally meet me; the “legend.” Later, he added that, outside of the family, no one kept Robin’s memory alive the way that I did. The stories we told over the years had created the effect that he and Robin had "met," when they actually never did. His sentiment was so heartfelt, and his words touched me in ways I never expected. Being acknowledged for guiding Robin’s girls to some form of being okay completely blew me away.
There is no rulebook or checklist for grief — there is only one’s heart. I love Robin’s family, and I feel blessed to be considered a special part of their circle.